The Corner

Politics & Policy

Priebus Meets Privately with Mike Lee, Never Trump Leaders to Discuss Procedural Compromise

CLEVELAND — Barely two hours into the much-anticipated meeting of the Convention Rules Committee, a backroom deal may be in the works. 

According to two sources, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and top RNC officials are huddling privately with Senator Mike Lee, Virginia Committeeman Morton Blackwell, and leaders of the Never Trump movement to discuss a procedural compromise that would allow for gimmick-free votes on anti-Trump measures in exchange for their cooperation in not gumming up the works and prolonging the Rules Committee meeting unnecessarily. 

The discussion is taking place during a recess from the Rules Committee meeting, which was caused by a printer jam inside the hearing room. (There are murmurs in the room that the extended recess — see the UPDATE below — has nothing to do with a printer jam, but rather with this backroom meeting.)

Kendal Unruh, the Colorado delegate who has led the charge to allow convention delegates to vote their conscience — essentially unbinding them from supporting presumptive nominee Donald Trump — is part of the meeting. So is Ken Cucinnelli, a Cruz ally who is leading the charge to restructure certain guidelines of the GOP’s nominating process.

It’s unclear whether anti-Trump representatives will agree to the deal. The incentive is unclear, as they are assured of a vote on their amendments anyway — and, in the eyes of their allies, their best chance at success may be wearing down their fellow delegates with a long, drawn-out meeting.

UPDATE I (10:15 a.m.):  Rules Committee chair Enid Mickelsen announced at roughly 10:15 a.m. that the committee would recess until 1 p.m. due to technical issues. This adds even greater urgency to Priebus’s goal of expediting the meeting. It got off to a slow start: Amendments were offered to 9 of the first 12 rules of the Republican party. There are 42 rules total. (None of the amendments have yet been debated; they are simply registered by delegates to be debated later.)

Mickelsen made clear that the proceedings will last at least until Friday. But they can go no later than 5 a.m. Saturday, when the Secret Service needs to sweep the room to prepare it for other convention-related events.

UPDATE II (11 a.m.): According to multiple Rules Committee sources, the word is that Unruh, who has organized the anti-Trump rebellion, can’t get anywhere near 28 votes without the aid of Cuccinelli, who is separately rallying support for changes to the Republican Party’s nominating process. Sources say Cuccinelli has realized Unruh won’t have the numbers even with him whipping on her behalf, and is open to brokering an agreement with Priebus under which he wins some modifications in exchange for backing down from the anti-Trump measures and allowing the rest of the Rules Committee meeting to proceed quickly and without the incessant offering of new amendments. 

UPDATE III (11:30 a.m.): Two smart points from a longtime RNC member, veteran of the Rules Committee and observer of the current negotiations: First, with the meeting recessed until 1 p.m., every minute that goes by is leverage lost for Priebus. If an agreement isn’t reached by the time the committee re-convenes, Unruh and her allies will be emboldened to push forward with their anti-Trump measures. This means, essentially, that Priebus has a 1 p.m. deadline to get a deal done. Second, the RNC official says if Priebus is successful, everyone will get something they want — except Unruh. The RNC chairman will get a smooth Rules Committee meeting; Cuccinelli will get some Cruz-friendly reforms to the primary process. Unruh, however, will get nothing in exchange for watching her anti-Trump efforts wither and die. “Do they have a bone they can throw Kendal?” the RNC official said. “Probably not. I think she goes under the bus.” (Another RNC official says despite Cuccinelli’s realization, Unruh still believes she’ll have 28 votes. “She’s high,” the official said of the Colorado delegate.

UPDATE IV (11:55 a.m.): The meeting has broken up, and sub-groups are now convening to discuss whether the terms of the negotiations are acceptable, according to a source involved. There does not appear to be a specific agreement in place, but rather some broad parameters for an eventual deal. It’s almost noon, however, and the 1 o’clock deadline (see UPDATE III) is fast approaching. 

UPDATE V (12:55 p.m.): There is no deal, according to a source briefed on the negotiations, and the Rules Committee meeting will soon reconvene. According to the source, Cuccinelli requested that the first four nominating contests in 2020 be closed — meaning only registered Republicans could participate — and Priebus balked at the idea.

UPDATE VI: (1:05 p.m.): Another source close to the negotiations said there are simply “too many moving parts” and that Cuccinelli’s request was not the only reason for a deal not being reached. He says, however, that some discussions are still ongoing — even as the Rules Committee has now gaveled back into session. Senator Lee, an original participant in the talks, shrugged off questions about the negotiations. Asked if they would continue, he replied, “We’ll see.”

FINAL UPDATE (5:00 p.m.): No deal was reached, though the two sides were close, according to several people involved in the negotiations. There were lots of moving parts, but essentially it looked like this: Cuccinelli was arguing for a grab bag of longtime conservative goals, chief among them closing primaries to registered Republicans only; Priebus was interested in curtailing hours of mind-numbing (and potentially divisive) debate in the Rules Committee over procedural minutiae. Here’s the reality: Priebus and his allies had all the leverage in these negotiations, as they knew that many of the objectives conservatives were aiming for — such as banning lobbyists from becoming RNC members, and getting rid of “Rule No. 12,” which pertains to rule-writing authority in the GOP — were going to fail . (Indeed, both did, in lopsided fashion.) Cuccinelli surely knew this much, but was nonetheless attempting to extract concessions due to the RNC’s interest in avoiding a lengthy Rules Committee hearing. Because the talks collapsed, that’s exactly what we now have. The proceedings are set to last late into Thursday night and resume Friday morning. 

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